Starting from the top

Special to The Times

IT WAS Victoria Gilbert's first call to the architects' office, so she spelled out the situation as plainly as she could: "I've bought this house and started tearing down walls, and now I realize I haven't a clue what I'm doing. Please save me from myself."

The recently retired advertising executive had purchased the 2,500-square-foot home in fall 2006. The 1930s bungalow near UCLA satisfied many of Gilbert's requirements. It had a sizable yard for Jasper, her standard poodle, and offered better street-level access than her previous home nearby, which was reached by climbing 24 steps.

"I love this neighborhood," she says. "But I wanted more simplicity with everything on one level, and nice, wide-open spaces."

Gilbert forgave the house's board-and-batten and scalloped-trim storybook exterior. She looked beyond the shag carpeting and peach-colored interiors, figuring that a few cosmetic changes could give the house a more contemporary feel and flow.

She and a decorator embarked on what they assumed to be the easy task of removing a few interior walls. But that project quickly overwhelmed them.

Gilbert made that desperate call for more help while sitting in a bookstore, reading a magazine article about Apurva Pande and Chinmaya Misra, principals of CHA:COL, a Los Angeles design firm. She liked the young couple's redesign of their own 1948 Culver City bungalow, which infused modern flavor into a decades-old residence.

"What they did with their own house was exactly what I wanted," Gilbert says. "I felt like we had the same taste level."

PANDE AND Misra likened Gilbert's bungalow to a maze.

"We knew Vickie's house had a lot of potential, and we could see that there were bones here to work with. But there was little visual connection between the rooms," says Pande, a UCLA architecture graduate who worked with Frank Gehry before starting CHA:COL.

Rather than tear down the house in favor of all-new construction, the architects saw value in working within the existing parameters of the property.

"We think modern architecture really involves re-imagining the problem and considering the appropriate response, rather than beginning with a fixed solution in mind," Pande says.

Cozy in its original proportions, the bungalow had suffered from too many do-it-yourself additions. It had a mishmash of roof angles and gables, described by the architects as a "California roof." Inside, the vaulted spaces were hidden behind dropped ceilings, making the small rooms feel claustrophobic.

"This was like a house with two volumes: the rooms below and the hidden ceiling spaces above," Pande says.

The negative became a positive when the architects peeled back the 8-foot ceilings, exposing the rafters and cathedral-like proportions in several rooms. Adds Pande: "We wanted to let the house show off its lines."

Ceilings in the living and dining rooms are now dramatically defined by A-shaped trusses built from vertical-grain Douglas fir. Powder-coated bolts and sheer plates connect the 2-by-10-inch chords and 2-by-4-inch struts, revealing contractor Sean Cloherty's craftsmanship.

"We purposely kept the exterior shell of the house and the walls very clean, and let the trusses be the decorative element," Misra says.

Douglas fir also appears in ceiling beams in Gilbert's bedroom suite and around the windows throughout the house.

The ARCHITECTS realigned the hodgepodge of rooms into three parallel bays running east to west. Interesting positive-negative patterns emerged, thanks to the way a trio of outdoor patios worked into the overall plan.

"This project was all about increasing volume and sightlines," says Misra, a Southern California Institute of Architecture graduate who worked at the Jerde Partnership before co-founding CHA:COL. "We've opened up rooms to give them a see-through quality."

Now, as soon as Gilbert walks through the front door, she catches a glimpse of her verdant backyard, framed by a new window punctuating the west wall.

"The idea that it might be possible to stand there and see all the way through to the back appealed to all of us," Pande says.

The central "bay" functions as a hallway with room-like proportions that satisfies Gilbert's desire for spaciousness. It runs the length of the house, 65 feet, linking living spaces arranged along either side, including a light-filled dining room, a sunken living room, the kitchen and a gallery that also serves as a media room. Open niches in several interior walls reinforce a sense of transparency.

At the back of the house, three tranquil bedroom suites have frosted glass doors to allow western light to pour into the more public living spaces. The spa-like bathrooms have bands of Italian tile on the floors and walls.

With coppery-hued wood in the beams overhead, an equally organic material seemed appropriate below. The irregularly spaced node pattern in the vertical-grain bamboo flooring is subtly repeated in the varied heights and widths of the custom bookcases. The shelves fill an entire living room wall and merge with the ceiling trusses.

Interior walls are finished in smooth stucco, painted pale gray with warm undertones. Darker hues of pewter and charcoal appear on built-in benches, fireplaces and mantles.

"I like the idea of my whole house being a neutral canvas, and then using my really beautiful Persian rugs to add color," Gilbert says.

A singular dash of brilliance in the kitchen comes from the crimson-enamel Italian stove, a counterpoint to the calm, monochromatic composite quartz countertops, pale gray lacquered cabinets and brushed aluminum hardware and backsplash tiles.

The size of the room hasn't changed from its original footprint, but with a popped-up ceiling and a skylight trimmed in Douglas fir, it feels larger. A conventional doorway has been removed, allowing Gilbert's guests to gather in the adjacent media room while she's cooking and entertaining.

A window in the kitchen overlooks a 17-by-20-foot private breakfast patio. One of three open-air rooms, the patio had been a rarely used void between the garage and a bedroom addition. New concrete pads create interesting rectangular bands, and potted gardenia trees provide a living canopy to shelter outdoor seating.

"We designed from the inside, outward," Misra says. "This house is a combination of many indoor-outdoor spaces which hadn't been fully explored."

Visual devices further integrate the house and garden, such as a built-in stone bench in the backyard that runs up to the home and reappears inside as a window seat.

The living room, media room and Gilbert's office-den surround the third patio, measuring 19 feet square. The redesign added generous sliding and French doors that draw sunlight and garden breezes through the house. The original brick-faced outdoor fireplace gained a stucco facade similar to the interior fireplaces. Newly poured concrete landing steps not only accommodate a grade change between indoor and outdoor levels, but also double as seating.

An exterior face-lift called for the removal of the old board-and-batten siding. The home's geometry was simplified with smooth gray stucco, and square and rectangular cement boards attached with exposed fasteners. This clean silhouette is aided by concealed gutters, simple rain-chains and subtle aluminum window reveals.

The overhanging front porch that once prevented light from penetrating the living room and dining room has been removed. A cottage-style bay window in the living room was enlarged to create a contemporary, ceiling-to-floor glass bay overlooking the entry garden.

And the front lawn has disappeared, replaced by smooth black river rock punctuated by grasses, sedges, horsetail and ferns.

LAST fall, toward the end of the design process, Misra and Pande stood together outside Gilbert's house. They noticed the play of light against the pale stucco and the attractive shadows defining the new geometry. A mature coral tree cast dappled leaf patterns against the home's facade.

"We commented to each other that the scene resembled a James Harrill painting," Pande recalls.

It turns out that Gilbert had been collecting work by the late artist for years, drawn to his dreamy canvases of sun-bleached Greek and New Mexico buildings silhouetted against azure skies.

Now she has a serene, light-filled home that is the ideal environment for her collection of Harrill's evocative paintings.

The young architects who revitalized an aging bungalow couldn't be more pleased with this notion.

"It's one of those rare instances when the designers have an intention and the client reads it the same way," Pande says.

Gilbert put it a different way: "I think there was an element of magic here."

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